|Art: Sworup Nhaisiju|
Flood-preparedness measures are divided into structural and non-structural varieties. The former include embankments and related flood-protection walls, while the latter include measures such as zoning within floodplains, building shelters, raising the platforms of borewells and hand pumps above flood level, public-awareness campaigns and capacity-building for a range of preparedness. Forecasting and early-warning systems constitute another significant non-structural measure when dealing with flood-prone areas. In India, the Central Water Commission (CWC) has established a country-wide forecasting system, with alert information shared with all concerned state governments. During the monsoon season, data from 945 stations in the country’s 62 river sub-basins is collected, analysed and applied on a daily basis.
Let us start with a bit of historical context. During the British period, the agency mandated with disaster management in India was the Ministry of Agriculture, as the most frequent disasters in the Subcontinent were recurrent floods and famines. After Independence, the Ministry of Agriculture continued to play this role until as late as 1999, when an official review suggested formulating disaster-management plans at the national, state and district levels. One of the most significant recommendations included in the subsequent report of 2001 was to vest the Ministry of Home Affairs with responsibility for disaster management. Another important recommendation was to establish institutional mechanisms for disaster management, including an apex body at the national level and similar institutions at the state and district levels.
The Indian Ocean tsunami, in December 2004, was a major turning point in understanding the need for comprehensive disaster-management approaches. A year later, the government enacted the Disaster Management Act, following which the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA, of which this writer is a former member) was established and took on the apex role. The NDMA’s executive committee is headed by the home secretary, and its membership includes the secretaries of 14 key ministries; this body performs the tasks related to the implementation of the policy, plans and guidelines. The Disaster Management Act of 2005 also mandated the establishment of State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs), headed by the chief ministers of the states of India, as well as District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs), headed by district collectors and co-chaired by the elected representative of the respective zilla parishads.
Serious challenges still remain in disseminating alert and early-warning information to flood-prone communities themselves. With the spread of new telecommunication technologies, multiple communication channels are today being used to try to get this critical information ‘the last mile’. The CWC currently operates a network of 878 hydro-meteorological observation sites and disseminates flood forecasts, alert and early-warning messages through a countrywide network of over 500 wireless stations to district authorities; this is now buttressing telephone, telex, fax, satellite and VoIP (Internet telephone) facilities for communicating early-warning messages to various authorities. This has helped to reduce the loss of lives and disruption to livelihoods to a large extent.
From the district headquarters to taluka and tehsil levels, phone, fax and wireless communication is often used. From the tehsil headquarters to villages and smaller settlements, wireless, phone and mobile phones are used. At the very lowest level, even loudspeakers are used to spread evacuation messages. These multiple channels of communication have been used by various agencies to transmit alert and early-warning messages over the past several years. In the recent past, however, innovative approaches have also been attempted by civil-society organisations in several disaster-prone areas to disseminate these messages to the community level, deploying combinations of communication media, including wireless communication supplemented by public-address systems.
The CWC has also deployed automatic water-level-monitoring sensors and tidal gauges with satellite-based transmitters. These can transmit information on rising water levels to designated control rooms, which in turn communicate with district authorities who are tasked with alerting flood-prone communities. During monsoon season, these messages are sent two or three times a day – and during peak flood situations, even hourly. Agencies such as the Indian Meteorological Department, Ministry of Water Resources and Ministry of Earth Sciences also use remote sensing information to identify areas that are likely to be inundated, backed by scenario analysis and simulation models. The CWC uses 175 stations for flood forecasting, of which 147 are for river stage forecast and 28 stations are for flow forecast. These stations are spread over nine major river basins in the country. The 147 ‘river stage’ forecast stations use sensors to monitor the water levels in the rivers that flood regularly, and transmit messages to designated control rooms for onward transmission to government officials. The 28 ‘flow forecast’ stations are located at critical locations for monitoring the inflow into the rivers, especially from reservoirs that release water when their water level rises.
Given the nature of Southasian rivers, floods in India are frequently the result of waters coming from across the borders in Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet/China and Bangladesh. An Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission, headed by the water ministers of both countries, has been functioning since 1972, tasked with monitoring all concerns related to common rivers. Since 1989, Kathmandu and New Delhi have been maintaining 42 monitoring stations in Nepal and 18 in India to monitor flooding situations in rivers common to the two countries. In addition, 35 stations are maintained by the Bhutanese government, which shares all such information with New Delhi.
In 2002, New Delhi and Beijing also signed an agreement for information-sharing related to water levels on the Tsangpo Siang/Brahmaputra at three sites; during the monsoon, Indian officials receive this information twice a day. In 2005, another agreement was signed with China to establish a monitoring station in Tibet on the Sutlej river (Langquin Zangbu), and again to share information with New Delhi twice a day. As envisaged in the Indus Water Treaty in 1960, India and Pakistan have created permanent posts – Commissioners for Indus Waters – in each government, and together they form the Permanent Indus Commission. India shares daily data from 280 hydrological sites in six basins of the Indus system every month with counterparts in Pakistan. For the rivers of the Indus system, India also shares priority telegrams, telephone messages and radio broadcasts with Pakistan based on monitoring. These messages are sent to the Indus Commissioner’s Office in Pakistan and, depending on the nature of the message, appropriate channels are chosen for the communication.
While these constitute relatively good starts, crossborder information needs to be made available on a real-time basis if appropriate flood-preparedness measures are to be initiated by local communities after early warnings. Trans-boundary concerns on disaster-related information-sharing have been discussed at several bilateral and regional meetings. But inter-governmental platforms (such as SAARC and ASEAN) as well as relevant institutions (such as the new SAARC Disaster Management Centre and ICIMOD, the mountain-focused agency) have yet to place adequate priority on these concerns and improve coordination for effective data-sharing. Most of these issues have been treated as concerns to be addressed bilaterally, but the solutions tend to be ones that require a regional focus. The potential of bilateral agreements has yet to reach its full strength, typically due to other contentious undercurrents between the governments.
There is also a pressing need to document successful flood-management practices, and to share this information with flood-prone communities. Eventually, there will also need to be a widespread risk assessment and vulnerability analysis of flood-prone areas, including the preparation of highly detailed base maps. In the case of most river basins, the CWC and the Ministry of Water Resources have carried out studies, but more needs to be done in terms of scenario analysis and modelling. Still, one of the most important mitigation measures remains the simple preventive maintenance of embankments and flood-protection walls. To date, embankment maintenance, desilting, canal repair and constant monitoring of field channels have been neglected by most state governments, often due to resource constraints and the low priority assigned to these tasks under a ‘business as usual’ approach.
Due to improvements in early warning and flood forecasting, district authorities in India can today initiate proactive evacuation action. In areas that face recurrent flooding, zones that can serve as temporary relief camps are identified in advance, and arrangements are being made for safe drinking water, sanitation and health facilities. Local youths are also being trained to carry out search-and-rescue operations, and to evacuate individuals caught in flooding. Training programmes and mock drills have been conducted in flood-prone areas to teach people to make rafts from locally available materials, and to prepare improvised life-saving equipment. Flood-prone communities are also being provided training in preparing emergency relief kits, and storing valuables and important documents in safe locations in their houses.
After the immediate crisis of the flooding has passed, transparency in the distribution of relief assistance to flood-affected people is widely known to improve confidence levels in affected communities. The publication of relief entitlements – on, for instance, gram panchayat notice boards – can help in ensuring that there are no leakages, and also guarantee that eligible individuals are not deprived from the assistance they are owed.
Local youth volunteers must be made aware of the possibility of the spread of water-borne diseases after the onset of floods, as hand pumps and borewells frequently become contaminated by muddy water during and after floods. Similarly, the disposal of animal carcasses and the cremation of the deceased also require special care in such situations. The caregivers in each community must be trained to provide psycho-social support and mental health care, as some of those who have lost their relatives, lands, houses or assets will undoubtedly be traumatised, and might need help to overcome their grief and trauma.
In the aftermath of the Kosi floods of 2008, the Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka floods of 2009 and the Uttarakhand floods of 2010, the state governments cumulatively estimated the damage caused at some INR 800 billion. If the capacities for disaster preparedness, mitigation and emergency response had been strong enough, most of these losses could have been prevented. For the sake of comparison, note that for the period 2005-10 around INR 213.3 billion had been earmarked for India-wide disaster management. The gap between this and the actual losses clearly highlights the strong justification for investing in strengthening disaster preparedness, mitigation and emergency response. So far, most governments have only reacted to disasters after the fact, typically by providing relief assistance to affected communities. More recently, however, the emphasis has shifted to strengthening pre-disaster preparedness, capacity-building of local communities and introducing disaster-related risk-reduction interventions.
In the tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07), the National Planning Commission for the first time introduced a separate chapter on disaster management, which focused on looking at disasters from a development perspective. ‘Development programmes that go into promoting development at the local level have been left to the general exercise of planning,’ it read.
Measures need also to be taken to integrate disaster mitigation efforts at the local level with the general exercise of planning, and a more supportive environment created for initiatives towards managing of disasters at all levels: national, state, district and local. The future blue-print for disaster management in India rests on the premise that in today’s society while hazards, both natural or otherwise, are inevitable, the disasters that follow need not be so and the society can be prepared to cope with them effectively whenever they occur … the compounded costs of disasters relating to loss of life, loss of assets, economic activities, and cost of reconstruction of not only assets but of lives can scarcely be borne by any community or nation.
During the early stages of drawing up strategies for inclusive growth for the 11th Five-Year Plan (2008-13), the Planning Commission set up a working group chaired by a Member of the NDMA to work out ways to incorporate disaster management in development planning. Based on subsequent recommendations, the 11th Five-Year Plan extended the spirit of the transition initiated in its predecessor, aiming to give ‘impetus to projects and programmes that develop and nurture the culture of safety and the integration of disaster prevention and mitigation into the development process.’ It also noted that ‘the guidance and direction to achieve this paradigm shift’ would be expected to come specifically from the NDMA.
The Planning Commission further explained that ‘mainstreaming’ disaster management into development planning means looking at every part of that process ‘not only from the perspective of reducing the disaster vulnerability of that activity, but also from the perspective of minimising that activity’s potential contribution to the hazard.’ Examples of such an approach include zoning and urban planning, upgrading and enforcing building codes, adopting disaster-resilient building designs, expanding insurance and early warning systems, and creating additional technical competence among a range of engineers, etc.
In consultation with the Planning Commission, the NDMA and concerned ministries have worked out ways to scrutinise the incorporation of disaster management concerns in development plans throughout the central and state governments. For instance, if hospitals or school buildings have to be constructed in areas of high seismic risk, their design must incorporate earthquake-resistant construction techniques. Similarly, if roads are to be built in areas that are prone to flooding or storm surges, the specifications require that these are built in such a way that they cannot be washed away during the monsoon season or when the rains arrive. These now have to be complied with while submitting any plan proposal before the Planning Commission. In so doing, the Indian government has become one of the first in Southasia (and one of the leading examples around the world) to operationalise the mainstreaming of disaster management in development plans. The 12th Five-Year Plan is likewise expected to build on this success by institutionalising the processes within the development-planning framework in the central and state governments.
As local communities are always the first to respond to a disaster situation, the Indian government is encouraging the involvement of all stakeholders in strengthening community-based disaster management through comprehensive training programmes, public-awareness campaigns, mock drills and so on. This is one of the pillars of the National Policy for Disaster Management, as officially approved in October 2009. While formulating individual State Disaster Management Policies, many state governments have also started to apply these principles for emphasising communities in disaster preparedness, disaster-related risk reduction, mitigation and emergency response, rehabilitation and recovery.
Over the past few years, disaster situations in India have also witnessed changing roles of women, from passive victims to agents of social change. During the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, women in many villages mobilised their own savings to provide necessary support to affected communities, and even financed some risk-reduction initiatives for their villages. This transformed the quality of life of the disaster-prone communities through large scale social-mobilisation efforts. Examples can be seen in improved levels of confidence and community resilience among women’s groups in many disaster-prone communities, and the success stories of replication of Community Disaster Resilience Funds in thousands of villages due to women-led initiatives in several states.
Special efforts are also being made to create a culture of disaster preparedness, mitigation, risk reduction and emergency response among children and youths, including through changes to curricula. The Committee on Boards of Secondary Education, the All India Council on Technical Education, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the University Grants Commission, the Indian Medical Council and others have reviewed the curricula of relevant educational programmes by setting up expert working groups, and carried out necessary revisions in the curricula of schools, higher education and professional education. Special efforts are also being made to involve youths in NCC, NSS and Nehru Yuvak Kendra (a voluntary youth organisation supported by the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, with state, district and sub-district presence) in improving disaster preparedness in their neighbourhoods.
An empowered community – one that is aware about the disaster-related vulnerability of their local area and capable enough to address the challenges of establishing temporary relief camps, providing safe drinking water, sanitation and health services, and managing a system of transparent assessment of damages and distribution of relief assistance – is clearly one of the most important parts of any effective disaster-management system. Public awareness campaigns and capacity-building initiatives are being launched with the help of elected representatives, NGOs, self-help groups and related small-scale organisations. Due to the myriad experiences that have evolved through the years, successful coping strategies of communities which have been living with floods historically will have to be documented and widely shared.
Fragile governance systems will always pose serious challenges in improved flood preparedness, mitigation and emergency response. In the context of disaster management, good governance (especially transparency, accountability, inclusion, non-discrimination, etc) cannot be left as a responsibility of the government alone. Rather, besides the community, corporate sector, civil society and multi-disciplinary professionals all have to contribute to identify possible emerging risks and vulnerabilities, developing worst-case scenarios and preparing to face them in advance by developing local capacities through training, mock drills, awareness campaigns, participatory risk assessment and vulnerability analysis exercises, and capturing the wisdom of elderly people in understanding coping strategies. Natural disasters are often caused by human interference with nature, and also by lack of effective coordination among multiple entities with overlapping mandates. Recent experiences thus underline a need to carry out frank diagnostics of the failure of governance systems in disaster-prone areas.
The impact of the various planning interventions mentioned above is already being seen, in reducing the loss of lives due to flooding in several parts of India. Even though the lives of about 200 million people are affected by floods during the worst such years in India, the number of lives lost due to flooding has been declining. The real challenge continues to be to reduce the economic damage caused by the floods, especially by reducing the number of houses, the hundreds of kilometres of roads and the community assets and rural infrastructure destroyed and damaged by flooding every year. Even though efforts have begun in mainstreaming disaster management in development planning at the national level, the institutionalisation of these efforts at the state, district and sub-district levels continue to remain serious challenges. The involvement of all stakeholder groups is required to meet these challenges in making disaster-prone communities take greater responsibility for disaster risk reduction in their local neighbourhoods.
-- N Vinod Chandra Menon is a former member of the Indian government’s National Disaster.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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